Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What to say when an athiest dies

A doctor wrote about an athiest patient of his dying. It's worth the read. Dr. Hebert is a good writer. But, well, he went down a notch for me on this entry. His word choices toward the end of piece conveyed a meaning which angered me.

What should you say when an athiest dies?

Talk about how that person lived. Choose a memory that you hold dear and share it with others around you.

I remember my father-in-law's funeral. He was raised a Quaker and then followed his wife's religion (Southern Baptist) when he married her. He was a man who lived his life as close as he could to Jesus' teachings. He served in the Navy as a corpsman so he could answer the call of his country and still hold true to his Quaker beliefs. He was gentle, patient, kind. He kept no record of wrongs against him. I never saw an ounce of envy in him. If he ever displayed any regret it disappeared as he remembered all the good that followed his decisions. Honestly, he looked and found the good in everyone. He was a quiet man and a content one. His funeral was filled with references to Jesus and to God and full of prayers and hyms. It fit him and his life.

My father's visitation and funeral was right for him. He was brought up in the Episcopal faith. When I complained at the age of five about something going on in Sunday school at our church, he didn't go back or make me return. In all truthfulness, I don't remember him talking about his beliefs or God in my entire life. Whatever he believed, he believed quietly and very personally.

A friend of my mother's said quiet prayers over my father's body. Each person who had the courage to look upon what remained of my father said whatever needed to be said to him or herself. The funeral service at the national cemetary was about remembrance--not about God. His close friends called him the epitome of the citizen-soldier and shared memories of how my father touched their lives. My aunt remembered him as the leader of our family. My sister beseeched the ones in attendance to emulate him. My mother shared her memories of him and how he loved his family. That was what he had told my mother that he wanted--first when he was a Marine facing a possible death in Vietnam and then much later in life as he attended the funerals of friends.

Isn't that how funerals should be? A reflection on the person's life? When an athiest dies, don't say a prayer or ask for forgiveness for that person. Focus on the person, not the belief, or faithlessness as Dr. Hebert described it. There is not nothingness if you remember the person and perhaps learned something and passed on that knowledge to another.


wolfbaby said...

So very true and well said.

TrvlnMn said...

I read Dr. Herbert's post. I didn't see much to be bothered by. I think the "embarrassed silence" he references is not a negative statement about the deceased athiest (or his/her belief system), but is instead an observation and acknowlegement about how religion plays such an integral role to a majority of people's grieving rituals, and the discomfort an athiest's perception of the afterlife and lack thereof might cause.

When a person of no belief dies, what is to be said of them?

I personally would prefer to fall back on that line that I've heard often spoken during a funeral. "For as long as there is someone who remember's the deceased s/he will not be truely dead. But will instead live on in us, in the way they touched our lives, and in our memories of them."

And may we all find solace in the memories of those we loved who are no longer with us.

Kell said...

...and as a PS to your comment, I believe losing my father will be a horrifying thing for me. With my nephew, he was sick for his entire life - so I had time to prepare. With my dad, it's going to be very different.

Sarabeth said...

Trvlnmn--I agree that his question is valid, and it isn't what bothered me. I'm nitpicking about some of the words he chose--like faithlessness and embarrassed silence. I may just be touchy because of the death of my father recently.

And, also in the comments, Dr. Hebert admitted that it was his failing to not find a connection with the woman.

In the end I was bothered by him drawing a parallel between her empty life and her atheism.

Genevieve said...

<"Isn't that how funerals should be? A reflection on the person's life?"

It seems wrong to me to include elements of Christianity or any other religion in an atheist's funeral. It also seems wrong to have a "religion-free" funeral for someone whose life included religious faith. Personally, I would want my faith to be included in my funeral, not just to have a reflection on my life.

jarhead john said...

This is exactly why funerals should be planned, and conducted, by those who knew the deceased; with the wishes and beliefs of the deceased incorporated into the service.

If I want to pray for a deceased atheist, then I will do that; but I certainly wouldn't interject that into their funeral.